Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

The massive power of tiny words

I’ve written before about how the word ‘just’ can be used insidiously to downplay things – ‘just a hobby’ ‘just a bit of fun’… today it’s the word ’if’ that I want to scrutinise. It’s a very small word that can have massive impact.

For example… I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry if you took that the wrong way. I’m sorry if that caused offence. I’m sorry if I’m bothering you. I’m sorry if you feel that way.

The carefully deployed ‘if’ can have a number of impacts. It can create uncertainty – which may undermine what someone else was saying. It suggests the person iffing isn’t confident about whether there really is a problem. Often it also functions to gently shift the balance of responsibility over to the other person, indicating that the person doing the iffing isn’t responsible for how anyone else has taken things. It’s the language of minimising and downplaying issues.

As with my above examples, using ‘if’ this way is also part of making a non-apology. This is where you say something that has the words of apology in it but fails to do the job. “I’m sorry if you were upset by that” is not an apology – it recognises no responsibility for harm caused, no regret and no desire to fix things. It’s a statement to get a person off the hook, not to resolve a situation or undo harm done.

The specific use of ‘if’ is not a thing you can easily call someone on in a conversation. It’s such a small word that you might not even notice it go by. But if you come out of conversations feeling like you’ve not been heard and respected and you don’t know why… if it always seems to be your fault and you can’t pin down how that’s been expressed… there may be iffing involved.

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What if all pains are birthing pains?

This was a question Imelda Almqvist asked on Twitter recently. You should follow her – https://twitter.com/ImeldaAlmqvist

I experience a lot of pain – most days at least some part of me hurts. Sometimes all of me hurts. I also experience emotional pain especially around depression, anxiety and historical wounding. If all of these pains are birthing pains, it leads to the question of, what am I birthing?

The physical pain I experience isn’t necessarily doing anything useful – at this point I have so much self control, stoicism, coping mechanisms etc that I don’t feel there’s any case to be made for it being character building. It does sometimes come as a consequence of what I do – physical activity tends to lead to pain. My Tai Chi teacher talks about this in terms of weakness leaving the body – a nice thought form. So, I am in the process of constantly birthing a body that will carry me through the rest of my life and will hopefully be able to keep moving, even if it does hurt.

When it comes to emotional pain, I think this might be a useful question to ask. What am I processing? How am I changing? What new self am I birthing in the process? What old wounds am I exposing to the air? What can I heal? What can I make out of this? Not because it is an absolute truth that the pain is a birthing pain, but because I can chose to think about it that way.

What my experiences of pain lack, that birthing pain has, is self-announcement. Admittedly, I had a lot of trouble getting anyone to take me seriously when I was in the early stages of labour – too much stoicism and self control, not enough screaming and crying… But when you’re squeezing out a whole new person, people expect you to be in pain and suffering and struggling and are likely to try and help and will eventually take you seriously… Most pain isn’t like that. One of the problems with ongoing pain is the likelihood of being treated like you’re making a fuss, being a hypochondriac, attention seeking, lazy and the like.

So here’s another question. What would happen if we all took pain more seriously? Our own and each other’s. What would happen if all pain was taken as seriously as birthing pains?


Pain, fatigue and mental health

Pain and fatigue make moving unpleasant. However, if you’re dealing with them for the long haul, you can’t just rest. Too much rest costs you strength, flexibility, other kinds of body health and it also has a mental health impact. Pushing against pain and fatigue to be active can undermine your mental health too. There are no easy answers here, and I think some days there aren’t even any right answers available. You can only do the best you can with what you have. Anyone telling you that some fairly simple thing will magically fix you does not understand the nature of the problem.

When dealing with short term problems, ‘listen to your body’ is good advice. However, when the hurting is long term, and all your body wants to do is avoid pain, this doesn’t work. Modest exercise encourages blood flow which can help with healing. Lymph fluids don’t have any pump to circulate them and they need moving about – which means you have to move about. Muscles get weaker with lack of use, and everything gets harder and hurts more and you circle into even smaller spaces with less scope for living. Keeping moving is hard, figuring out how to do it safely is hard, and not everyone who is a professional in this area reliably knows what is safe for whom. Yoga and mindfulness are not actually good for everyone.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that it may be better to take risks with my body and focus on maintaining my mental health. If I can keep my head together, I can manage the pain and fatigue. If I plunge into depression and anxiety, bodily wellness cannot save me. So, when there’s a tension between different needs, I look most at what will best serve my mental health. There are so many days when listening to my body results in a set of contradictory messages. Bits of me need things that other bits of me will find difficult. I trust my head. In practice, my head is the bit of me that keeps the whole show on the road. If I can focus, if I have willpower to deploy, if I can reason well – I can manage everything else that much better.

It works for me – as well as I think anything can. It may or may not work for anyone else. What you’re dealing with is personal, and probably complicated in its own ways. How you navigate has to be personal, and it has to be based on your needs and priorities. Sometimes, no matter how positive you are, how much you focus on healthy life choices, doing all the right things, sometimes bodies still go wrong and hurt and decline to move much. It may mean you don’t entirely know how to manage some aspect of what you’re dealing with. It may also mean there are things that happen that cannot be managed, they’re just how it goes. When focusing on wellness, it is important to remember that there isn’t always a magic combination that will make you perfectly well, and if your body hurts it is not proof that you’ve failed in some way.

For some people, a change in diet or other lifestyle features can solve a problem – if that’s you, great. But I’ve also watched people trying to find magic bullets for problems and not getting anything to work. I’ve seen that turn into strange, faddish diets that rapidly caused more harm than good. I’ve seen it turn into a fear of doing all kinds of things. If trying to be well is narrowing your life options then it may not be working. Not everything is fixable, and learning to make the best of what you’ve got can be the most helpful and most liberating thing.


Negotiating relationships

It is scary being totally honest with another person. Talking about the things that are most raw and relevant around how you feel, what you want, what works for you and what doesn’t. It can be terrifying as it leaves you wide open to being judged and you give the other person in the conversation all the keys to your most vulnerable parts. Not everyone is worthy of that kind of trust, certainly.

And then, if they will do the same for you and share their truth then you may have to look at where that doesn’t fit together. What one of you craves may be off limits for the other. What one of you struggles with may have been mistakenly repeated by the other. Squaring up to having got things wrong for another person is uncomfortable to say the least. It may be more tempting to get defensive and justify what you’ve done rather than listen and learn. That of course is an honesty-killer.

Often you can’t tell if someone will prove worthy of that trust without exploring what happens when you share. To be as open and honest as you can be and have that turned against you is a nasty experience – I certainly have t-shirts for that one. For each knock back the process of getting up and trying again with someone else is hard. But equally, each time someone responds in kind with open hearted truth, it gets easier.

So much more is possible when you can be that real with someone else. It’s true in every kind of relationship shape. If you can speak honestly and be heard, if you can listen open-heartedly and if there is respect on both sides, anything can be worked through. The possibilities grow tremendously. In friendships and romances alike, so much more is available when you can afford to put your heart on your sleeve. Without the risk taking of opening up, there’s far less scope for understanding, and for the magic you can co-create when you’re working open heartedly with another person.

Without deep honesty we’re mostly stuck playing out socially prescribed roles. We take relationship shapes that seem normal, and re-enact them no matter how ill suited we are for the part. We do what we think we are supposed to do – and that can be a narrow, miserable sort of outcome with no magic in it at all. Our standard-issue relationship shapes don’t allow for the nuances of specific people, and it’s only when we approach each other with honesty that we can have relationships based on who we are, not who we think we should be.


Learning to be angry

Anger is the emotion I struggle with. Other people’s anger can drop me into a state of panic. My own anger frightens me as well. For much of my life what’s happened is that I’ve managed to feel it – anything from crossness onwards – for perhaps a minute or two, and then it crumbles away into despair, or turns around and becomes self hatred. I’ve spent too long in spaces where everything was always my fault, and getting angry would only have made things more dangerous. When you can’t safely express dislike in a calm way, you certainly can’t lose your temper.

I’ve carried the fear that if I did get angry, it would be like the crushing experience of other people being angry with me. I would become what I loathe and fear. Horror in response to my own anger has kept me from looking at those feelings.

Anger has a lot of protective qualities, and I’ve seen that in other people. Anger can be a fair response, defending boundaries and pushing back against injustice. These are aspects of anger that I need in my life. In my history, their absence made me more vulnerable.

I’ve had two powerful experiences with anger recently. One came as a response to the heady mix of entitlement and wilful ignorance – a man who wanted to talk to me about how hard it is being heterosexual. I had an intense rage response, which I did not manifest and pointed out that queer people are subject to violence and ostracism and he isn’t… and when he tried to argue with me, I walked out. Feeling like being straight makes you ‘uncool’ is not the same as fearing physical violence. I did not stay to be wound up by him, or to waste energy trying to educate him. I did not support his view of himself as a victim – I’ve seen him try to do this before.

My second round with anger was brief and more nuanced. I was decidedly angry about something, and that anger enabled me to say a clear ‘no’ where previously I might have had trouble holding my boundaries. That of itself was both useful and powerful. It took me about half an hour to stop being angry, and then a whole bunch of things became visible – that I could see the other person had acted in error, not malice, and that no great damage had been done. I could also see that by holding my boundaries I had not only protected myself, but the other person as well – if we’d played out that mistake there would have been distress all round. I avoided that.

Protective anger has the scope to protect everyone in a situation. Anger is not an inherently unreasonable emotion – it’s taken me a long time to see that. It isn’t innately destructive. It certainly isn’t always a bad thing.

I’m going to be making more space for the quieter part of the anger spectrum – for crossness, frustration, annoyance, irritation and things of that ilk. I’m going to make sure I hold them carefully when they show up and that I look at them properly. I’m going to include them in my decision-making. Anger does not make me a terrible person. So long as I’m dealing with decent people, there should be room for getting irritable, annoyed and frustrated, and dealing with it appropriately – not with tantrums and power games, but with reasonable expression of what’s felt, moving towards making whatever changes are necessary.

Emotionally speaking, I have a whole new landscape to explore, and I think it’s one that will benefit me greatly.


Romance, passion and consent

It’s a popular scene in romantic tales… One person is passionately in love with the other and acts on this. In a sudden, overpowering move (likely to involve kissing) the one who is in love emotionally overpowers the object of their desire and afterwards nothing is the same. The object of desire is persuaded to fall in love, too. They may change sides in the conflict central to the story. They may betray their family and friends, or give up everything they have known. I am seldom persuaded by this bit, but that’s a story to take apart on another day.

We’re all creatures of reason and emotion. However, our considered choices about who we are and how we want to be can be – especially in the short term – totally derailed by our emotional and physical responses. Is that love? Or is it just a short term chemical response to stimulus? I’m pretty sure it isn’t consent. We’re shown persuasion of this kind in films and novels, where it’s usually presented as a good thing. It goes with the story that women say ‘no’ when they mean ‘persuade me’, that women find it hard to say yes to sex and passion and need to have their boundaries overcome, and that overcoming those boundaries by force of desire is romantic, and not rapey. If a man seduces a woman it is most usually depicted as a good and romantic thing. When it’s the other way round, the woman is more often depicted as evil. I do not like these stories.

In a seduction scene, we aren’t often shown the focus of desire being given chance to properly express their consent. For me, consent is both romantic and sexy, and verbalising desire is exciting. I find willingness to wait rather than overpower is much more romantic than seduction and that emotionally overpowering someone who has expressed an interest in that happening is much more engaging than using sexual power to strip away someone’s defences.

Power of course is a big part of it. There is power in being able to make it difficult for someone to say no to you. There is power in being able to persuade, to get someone else to submit to your desire or be so overwhelmed by what’s happening that they can’t figure out how to say no to you. To have the looks or the skill set to compromise someone else’s decision making ability seems a lot less attractive when framed in those terms. What we often see presented as romance has a lot more to do with power and persuasion than I feel comfortable with.


Keep Rolling

Music has a singular power to get through to a person, to impact on our feelings and to keep us going. You can carry a song silently within you, and it can be a powerful talisman, a motivator, a comfort.

It’s been a tough week – with a vast amount of bodily pain and significant amounts of anxiety, and now the cold, wet blanket that is depression. There have been two songs I’ve been holding on to.

This is one of them – a traditional style song from Show of Hands.

 

The other song was one Professor Elemental performed live in Stroud, and the lyrics about acceptability are a powerful antidote to the things happening inside my head when I’m not well.


After the gaslighting

Gaslighting is a deliberate process where one person sets out to destroy another person’s relationship with reality. It is often a feature of abusive relationships because a person who no longer trusts their own judgement is easier to harm and control. It’s also very normal for abusers to tell their victims that nothing happened. There was no punch. There was no shouting. It didn’t happen. The victim is mad.

When you hear day in and day out that you said things you are sure you never said, did things you do not think you did… you question yourself. If the person you love and trust keeps telling you that you’re imagining things, the damage can be done long before you notice what’s happening. You end up not trusting your memory or judgement and that’s terrifying. You’re so busy trying to hold on to a viable reality that you don’t see what’s being done.

I got out. What I’ve only just started dealing with is the legacy of gaslighting. I’ve not seen much about the aftermath which is part of why I’ve only just realised that there is one,for me.

If someone states as fact that I’ve done or not done something, where I think the opposite is true, then I fall straight into total panic. It’s easily done. A misheard word, a misremembering by someone else, a misreading, a misinterpretation… but I don’t default to assuming the other person made a mistake. I go straight back into that headspace where my reality was broken and I didn’t trust myself to know if something that hurt was in my best interests or not. I recognise it now as a form of triggering that makes me largely unable to deal with this kind of situation.

I can be put here by accident – we all make mistakes and many people pay less attention to their words than I do. What we remember is not always what the other person remembers – usually that’s fine, it’s when it gets thrown at me as unassailable fact that the panic kicks in. I can also be panicked by people ascribing meaning to my actions that was not what I meant at all and refusing to let me explain how I see things. I’ve gone a few rounds with this without recognising that triggering was part of the process. Evidently, I can be triggered by anything that looks like gaslighting and while it’s happening, I have no way of even thinking about whether this is an intentional attack or just poor communication. I don’t experience it as either, initially. I experience it as me being an awful failure of a human being who should crawl off somewhere and die quietly, because that’s where it puts me.

This is one of the things that makes triggering so difficult to deal with. While it’s happening, you often can’t tell it’s happening – a previous reality asserts itself over the top of the one you are currently in. You’re back in the place or the headspace where the trauma happened. It doesn’t leave room for questioning it, or thinking about the mechanics of what’s happening. With gaslighting, being put back there suddenly is terrifying and disorientating. It reasserts a former reality that wasn’t real and that was all about trying to break me. I feel the things I used to feel, and they are not good and further, they rob me of all means of dealing with whatever’s caused the trigger. If I’m panicking because I no longer know what’s real, I can’t deal with the other person’s mistake. Or my own.

I’m working on a strategy to cope with this next time it comes round. Here’s what I’ve got so far: I am entitled to feel however I feel regardless of whether it makes sense to anyone else. I am entitled to have opinions, even if they are at odds with other people’s opinions. I am entitled to feel safe, so if I’m not feeling safe I should step back from a situation and make some space to get myself on a better footing before I try and sort anything out. I do not owe anyone a response or explanation straight away, I can have more time. There are usually other people who I can check in with about what I said and did, and how it might be interpreted. I should do that as soon as I can. I have people I can trust to help me navigate. I need to develop these ideas when I’m not triggered so that I have them in my head when things go wrong.

I recognise that what has happened to me was not of my making. That makes it harder to deal with alone. However, the support of people around me makes a lot of odds. Trust is something I find difficult, but increasingly I think trust is the way out of this for me. It is in trusting the people who think I am sane enough, and good enough that I can build resistance to the triggering.


Contemplating Love

Love – at least in the romantic sense – is something we tend to treat as a mystery. How and when it will happen, no one knows, and who it will direct you to is unpredictable. Although, when you look at most people’s partner choices, you’ll see comparable age, class background, educational level and more. We’re more likely to pick people who are much like us and of course in doing this we’re more likely to have a daily life that requires few changes.

Love is a choice, not an accident.

Lust can be a bit random, but I’ve never considered lust on its own a good basis for a relationship. So many of our films and books show us people experiencing lust and getting it together, with this presented as romance. Romeo and Juliet are a classic of the form – two kids who do not know each other but really fancy each other and act on it. Love calls for more time, more depth, more involvement with each other.

Love is the choice to be open to something or someone – because of course romantic love isn’t the only option. Relationships that remain good (not habits or battle grounds) depend on choosing to keep loving each other. It’s an everyday choice, expressed in the tones of conversations, the small, affectionate gestures, the making and doing together that builds a life. Love is not something that happens to us, it is something we do, and the more deliberately we do it, the better the results are.

If you treat love as incomprehensible mystery, you are at the mercy of your desires and you can’t build anything. If you treat love as a deliberate choice, you can create it day by day. And quite possibly you can find some one(s) to co-create that with, making a life, a family, a relationship, a home, a network, a community or whatever else you want it to be. Choosing to invest deliberately in the people who love in return, who enrich your life, who delight you and who want you to be part of their existence means you have more scope for more good stuff. When love isn’t a random act of God, you can more readily walk away from what doesn’t work out, and pick where to invest your energy. The results are much better than ascribing it all to fate.


Hormones, feelings and identity

In recent years I’ve been making space for feelings as they happen within my body. I’ve paid more attention to my emotions and not tried to suppress them, and I’ve started to explore how to better embody and express those feelings. And then there’s the hormones…

I’ve spent the majority of my life inhabiting the hormonal shifts of my menstrual cycle. In the days before I bleed, I tend towards melancholy. When I’m bleeding, if anything is wrong in my life it will become much harder to ignore. I listen to the wisdom of my angry blood these days, and I deal with whatever comes out of that time. I get a few days off before the reproductive urges kick in, and a quieter patch after that. I know my cycle well and I know who I am within it, and I identify with those emotions. Who and how I am shifts during the month and I experience all of it as being intrinsically me.

Now, peri-menopausal, or as I prefer to call it, living with the menoporpoise, everything has changed. Hormones turn up as late night tsunamis that I can drown in, that sweep all before them, and wash away my brain and sense of self. I think things I wouldn’t normally think – levels of anxiety and despair and pointlessness that just don’t fit with who I am the rest of the time. There’s no rhythm to it, so I can’t adapt. Even as I pay attention to my emotions I’m in the uneasy position of having to acknowledge that this is happening in my body, but I can’t own it as part of how I feel. It is both me, and not me, and that’s quite challenging.

When the menoporpoise hormone tsunami hits, I can tell what it is. How I experience it is more in line with how I experience having taking something that impacts on me. Only what I’m taking here isn’t pain relief or alcohol, or a sugar high. It’s a wash of misery and horribleness. I can see how easy it would be to become this, to be persuaded by the bodily experience that these are my feelings and experiences.

In some ways I am advantaged by years of body ambivalence because I don’t assume that if I feel it, it must be me. I’ve dealt with physical pain and emotional trauma acting on my body, and I have a sense of self that holds those as part of it, but doesn’t give them the steering wheel. My identity is not entirely formed by my experiences, but also shaped by my deliberate choices. I’ve had to learn how to chose my way around damage inflicted, and intrinsic issues that I don’t want to be dominated by. This is another round of things happening in my body that I can’t do much about, but aren’t of my choosing. I experience them, but I do not become the experience. It makes me realise that there is always this potential – to embrace or reject making an experience a part of your identity.